One of the big ‘buzz’ terms in education today is ‘parent engagement’; one of the most misunderstood terms in education today is ‘parent engagement’! So, what is ‘parent engagement’ and how does it affect our children’s learning and wellbeing?

Harris and Goodall (2007) concluded that many schools ‘involve’ parents in the day to day running of their schools – canteen, P&Cs, fund-raising, working bees around the school –  but this is NOT ‘engagement’. Pushor and Ruitenberg (2005) suggested that ‘engagement’ implies a close and working relationship between teacher and parent; a sharing of parent and teacher knowledge of each child to promote long-term academic and personal success….and this is often where the confusion lies.

A recent workshop for teachers on the topic of ‘parent engagement’ was a real eye-opener for those who attended. One teacher told me “I nearly didn’t come because we have enough parent engagement….we can’t get rid of them! They’re always there!” Ninety minutes later she had a whole different perspective.

Many teachers I’ve worked with in this area seem to be under the impression that ‘parent engagement’ is synonymous with ‘parent interference’! Many believe that their professional judgement will be taken to task; that parents will tell them how to teach and what to teach; that parents will be constantly challenging school decisions on everything from what is being taught in the classroom and how it is being taught, to what is sold in the canteen and why.

Research (and evidenced-based results of effective parent engagement in schools) indicates that we need to move away from the ‘ivory tower’ perception of schools and the ‘locked gate’ mentality to embracing family engagement as policy, as education reform. Weiss, Lopez and Rosenberg (2010) assert that ‘family engagement must be a systemic, integrated and sustained approach, not an add-on or a random act.’

So, how do schools engage families in their children’s learning, and why is it so important to children’s education and mental health?

A good place to start is to ask the parents! Form a parent task-force; conduct surveys (but make sure you follow through on the results!) establish a parent ‘hub’ within the school grounds where parents can meet, have coffee, access resources to community services, build relationships with each other and with the school; invite parents to be part of an advisory board to assist with strategic planning, not just fund-raising; encourage parents to share their skills and knowledge with students….even at high school. Parents helping to ‘chef’ for a class, or demonstrate how to use a lathe etc goes over really well with the kids. Whether we like it or not, high school kids DO enjoy seeing their parents at school…as long as it’s not to sort out their personal issues for them!

This is not about bailing teachers up and asking lots of questions after school; and it’s not about parents telling teachers what to teach and how. This is about parents working alongside teachers in the education of their children – not a curriculum-driven relationship, but a human relationship which has an enormous and powerful impact on kids.

How does this deeper level of support have an impact?  “When parents are involved in their children’s education at home, they do better in school. And when parents are involved in school, children go farther in school and the schools they go to are better” (Henderson & Berla, 1994)

If you need convincing, just ask Jihad Dib, principal of Punchbowl Boys HS. His school has turned from dysfunctional to dynamic over the course of the last six years or so; low retention rates of teachers, students who didn’t value education or their school, and families who kept their distance. Jihad Dib worked on what he calls a “three pronged approach”- staff professional learning, a favourable learning environment and community inclusion. The culture of the students within the school has changed from ‘close enough is good enough’ to a desire for success and achieving their potential. ‘Parent engagement’ has helped to turn this school around. The open and transparent relationship that now exists has affected not only the quality of school life there, but also the attitudes of the students towards each other and the community at large. The days of graffiti on school walls, barbed wire fences and trashed classrooms have been replaced by a sense of ‘social responsibility’.

Academic levels of achievement have sky-rocketed at this school – but education is not just about that. These boys have not only found themselves, but they have also found their place within their community, including their involvement in a feeding the homeless program.  This kind of ‘turnaround’ does not happen by accident. Engaging the parent community in the education of their sons through parent training and information has had a positive impact on learning – but also, just as significantly, an impact on their personal development. These are young men with goals, with aspirations, with direction and, more importantly, with positive support from their school and their families.

‘Parent engagement’ is not about teachers relinquishing their role as educator; it is about sharing the responsibility of educating, nurturing and guiding young people towards a positive future. There are certainly vast numbers of ‘invisible parents’ who, no matter how hard the school tries, cannot get them through the front gate. There is no simple solution to how to engage ALL families, but the offer must be there at least!

 Parents are children’s first teachers – they know their kids better than anyone. Their support in continuing this role should not be stopped at the school gate. Schools and parents working effectively together surely must increase the chances of our children emerging from the education system as not only educated and employable but also, and more importantly, holding the view that they are ready to take their own, unique place in the world. That’s education; that’s engagement!     

                                                                                    ANGIE WILCOCK

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